CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- West Virginia's Board of Education was created to shield public schools from partisan politics. Its 12 members - nine appointed by the governor and three ex-officio state school leaders - supposedly are independent from politician interference. The state constitution specifies that no more than five of the nine appointees may belong to the same political party.
However, outrage is spreading because secret political conniving -- evidently plotted furtively by loyalists of Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va. -- suddenly ousted respected educator Jorea Marple as state school superintendent and lined up a Manchin associate to replace her.
Chris Miller, editor of The Spirit of Jefferson newspaper, wrote:
"Marple's ouster was a deplorable power grab that must be undone. ... [It was an] ugly and unprecedented power grab. ... No reason was given, and the move will hurt schoolchildren and communities throughout West Virginia. ... Disgraceful. ... In a state with a reputation for shady political deals, this power play ... stands out as the worst in memory. After Marple's dismissal, she asked for a reason and none was given, except the vague rationale that the board wanted to move in a different direction. It's frightening. Why would West Virginia want to lose the leadership of a fine, caring educator such as Marple, the first woman ever to hold the state superintendent's role?"
The Jefferson County paper urged angry West Virginians to bombard Gov. Tomblin with protests.
After five Manchin figures abruptly fired Marple, two other board members -- Priscilla Haden and Jenny Phillips -- quit in protest. Phillips' husband wrote bitterly:
"A Gang of Five fired the state superintendent without cause or notice. ... Within hours, it became apparent there was another party in the conspiracy plotted by the Gang of Five when board President Wade Linger, on a special board call, said Dr. James Phares would be named" to replace Marple.
Phares once was superintendent in Manchin's home county of Marion.
Article Twelve of the state constitution says the superintendent is a member of the Board of Education, and adds: "No member of the board may be removed from office by the governor except for official misconduct, incompetence, neglect of duty or gross immorality." However, the same article says the superintendent serves at "the will and pleasure" of the board. Does this mean the board acted illegally by firing Marple for no reason?
The only hint of a reason for the dismissal is that Marple was slow to answer an "education audit" funded by Gov. Tomblin. She wasn't. Bear in mind that the "audit" isn't a financial accounting, but a consultant's recommendations on how to run schools. However, some of the recommendations are dubious.
As we said last week, the Legislature's education committees should investigate to learn whether Manchin insiders pulled "an unprecedented power grab" to exert political control over public schools that supposedly are shielded from such intrusion.